Saturday 26 December 2009

Films: Night at the Museum 2; X-Files: I Want To Believe; and Memento

This time I'm ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous, starting with the latter. I rather enjoyed Night at the Museum, based on what might happen if an ancient Egyptian tablet in New York's American Museum of Natural History had the power to make all of the exhibits come to life in the hours of darkness. It was an undemanding children's fantasy, but quite original and entertaining. As usual, the sequel can't match up because the central premise is no longer novel, so Night at the Museum 2 (subtitled Battle of the Smithsonian in the USA) is just more of the same. In fact, one of the interesting plot elements - that the tablet can also extend people's lives - is dropped rather than followed up, and another feature - that the tablet can be adjusted to prevent exhibits waking up - is also ignored in the sequel, since that would scupper the whole plot. The emphasis is on slapstick humour, but for me almost the only laugh-out-loud moment comes after the film is over, in a short clip shown as the credits are rolling. This one is really only for young kids who loved the original.
On to another sequel, X-Files: I Want To Believe. On release in 2008 this one got quite a pounding from X-Fans, as I recall, and I'm not surprised: no aliens, no top-level conspiracies, no dramatic CGI, all rather dark (in both senses) and rather slow. Unlike the first film, the plot was quite credible and hung together logically (well, relatively), while the X-Factor was handled in a subtle fashion, so that it was never clear whether the key figure of the paedophile priest really was having visions or just colluding with the bad guys. Perhaps worst of all from the X-Fans' viewpoint, it was full of relationship stuff between Mulder and Scully, the latter being distracted by an irrelevant sub-plot concerning a terminally ill boy she was looking after at a hospital - which also finished on a surprisingly but satisfyingly ambiguous note. Of course, X-Phobes might conclude that this was a much better film than the first one, being far more adult and mature, but would any of them get to watch it?
After I had posted my review of Douglas Thompson's Ultrameta it was suggested to me that there were some similarities with the film Memento, so I managed to get hold of a copy. The film was written and directed by Christopher Nolan and released in 2000. It stars Guy Pearce as Leonard Shelby, whose ability to remember had been badly affected by a head injury during an incident in which his wife was murdered. His memory up to the incident was unimpaired, but since then he had been unable to remember any new events for more than a couple of minutes. The only way he could keep track of his life was to keep lots of notes, tattoo important facts on his body, and take annotated Polaroid shots of any significant items - people he knew, his car, the place he was staying - otherwise he would forget them as soon as he left them. His condition was a major handicap in pursuing the sole purpose of his life - to avenge his wife - but he was making steady progress in tracking down her killer.

The film really tests viewers' concentration by working backwards from the moment he kills the murderer. After each clip, time is rewound to an earlier moment and the next clip runs from then to the start of the previous one, and so on. As a result, the viewer slowly builds up a picture of what has led to the climactic moment and becomes aware - in a way which Shelby cannot - of the way in which his condition has allowed people to deceive and manipulate him.

This is a tragic tale (something I would normally avoid) but it is so well-constructed and intriguing that I found it engrossing throughout. It stayed in my mind for days afterwards as I kept thinking through the implications. It is leagues above the usual dumbed-down Hollywood action thriller fare, and must have taken courage to produce. When I checked the film out on the web, I was pleased to see that it did well in terms of both critical acclaim (including a couple of Oscar nominations) and at the box office. That was richly deserved.

Sunday 20 December 2009

Titan by John Varley

This 1979 book was the first of the Gaean trilogy, the others being Wizard and Demon. I have named the trilogy as among my top 20 favourite SFF stories (they feature the same central character in the same location throughout, so really make one more or less continuous tale) but it's been decades since I last read them, so I was pleased when Titan was chosen as December's read for the Modern SF discussion forum.

The story begins in a not-too-far distant future when the first manned voyage is being made to Saturn, under the captaincy of female pilot Cirocco Jones. As they approach the planet they discover an unknown satellite, which turns out to be a solid wheel-like artificial construction 1,300 kilometres across. It is mostly matt black, which accounts for the failure to spot it before. This captures their ship, and the crew go through a period of unconsciousness before being ejected onto the inner surface, into a habitable world which they dub Gaea.

So far it sounds like Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama, but as the story develops it becomes a lot closer to Niven's Ringworld, only even stranger (both books have been previously reviewed on this blog - see the list on the left for live links - and both also feature in my top 20 favourites list).

The crew of seven have been changed during their period of unconsciousness, acquiring different skills and attitudes which equip them to cope with the wide variety of environments and beings which they encounter, some of them decidedly bizarre. The last third of the book is taken up by an epic, months-long climb up one of the enormous cables which stretch from the inner surface of the rim up through huge spokes towards the hub of Gaea where they believe a controlling intelligence resides. There are some real surprises as they finally discover what Gaea is, and what has happened to them.

I earlier drew a comparison with Clarke's and Niven's books, but Varley's writing is much stronger on characterisation and relationships - not to mention sex. However, this does not detract from the drama and mystery of the story, which stands up very well as one of the modern classics of science fiction.

Thursday 10 December 2009

The X Factor by Andre Norton

Andre Norton was one of SFF's most prolific writers, publishing a huge number of books (I gave up trying to count the list on Wikipedia, but the total must be in the region of 200) between 1934 and her death in 2005. Many of these were co-authored with various other female novelists. The really strange thing is that I have read hardly any of her books, despite hoovering up all the SFF I could find in the 1960s and 70s. I can only assume that her work was not stocked in the libraries I used for much of that time, and I might also have been perplexed about where to start when faced with rows of her books in a bookshop.

The only exception I can recall is Judgment on Janus, which I read in the 1960s and enjoyed so much that I went looking for a copy a couple of decades later, with the bonus of finding the sequel (Victory on Janus) at the same time. I'll re-read and review those another time.

The X Factor, published in 1965, was recommended to me as a book I might like by someone on an SFF forum, so I tracked down a copy. The setting is a far future in which humanity has spread across many star systems, encountering various alien races. The hero is Diskan Fentress, a young man handicapped by a huge, clumsy body and a slow mind, but with an unusual ability to connect mentally with animals. Despairing of ever fitting in with his quick and graceful contemporaries or of living up to his famous space explorer father, he steals a spaceship and crash-lands on a planet found by his father which was identified as habitable but to be avoided. There he is found by an intelligent and telepathic but non-technical alien race, who see in Fentress an opportunity to achieve their own mysterious aims. Archaeologists and treasure hunters complicate matters and the hero battles though many dangers and hardships before the ambiguous and rather mystical conclusion.

Typical of the period, this is a short and fast-moving adventure story which I devoured in a couple of sessions. Characterisation is rather better than usual because of the focus on Fentress and the way in which he develops during the story. The aliens are also interesting, their strange viewpoints being glimpsed occasionally. Not a classic work, but well worth the time to read.

Friday 4 December 2009

Paradox (BBC TV SF detective series)

I have a major concern about this new series, since I've never found one which so strenuously avoids being watched. I missed most of the first episode due to my supposedly idiot-proof new digital recorder deciding to record only the last twenty minutes of the hour-long episode. I initially assumed that I'm just a higher grade of idiot than they allowed for, but in view of subsequent events I'm beginning to wonder. This failure did prompt me to investigate BBC's iPlayer, which provides access via their website to any of their output for the previous seven days. I had thought I'd need to watch it online, but discovered that I could download it and watch it on TV, given the right connections. One connecting lead later, plus much fiddling with computer settings accompanied by the traditional grumblings and cursings, eventually produced a result. The picture didn't occupy the whole screen but it was acceptable and at last I could see the whole episode.

For the second episode I was prepared. I not only checked carefully that the digital recorder was set for the full hour, I also set the DVD recorder to provide a backup. The next morning I checked the digital device - complete blank. So I sneered at it and congratulated myself on my thoroughness until I checked the DVD - also a complete blank. So it was back to the iPlayer again, except that this very shy series had evidently found out about this back-door route as the screen kept going black, but I discovered that hitting the ESC key brought it back again. I await with interest next week's happenings; will the iPlayer crash altogether this time?

Anyway, what's this reluctant show all about? The two principal characters are a scientist monitoring satellite data who finds that mysterious images giving fragmentary views of disasters keep being downloaded from a satellite, and the police detective he calls in to help identify them. Together they discover that the disasters haven't happened yet, and race (with varying degrees of success so far) to piece together what, where and who in order to try to prevent them.

This is looking like a classic piece of TV hokum. So far there is no indication of how this might be happening, or why only images of disasters are shown, or why the images show random close-ups which provide just enough evidence to lead the detective to the spot, or why all the disasters happen so conveniently close to their Manchester base. The scientist is unconvincing, displaying a rather creepy and enigmatic air of mystery instead of going off his trolley as any sensible person would, but fortunately the detective is played by Tamzin Outhwaite who is always worth watching (and not just for the usual male reasons - stop sniggering at the back!).

Perhaps the explanation for the difficulty in seeing the show is that it has acquired artificial intelligence and is too ashamed to be reviewed? Well, it's not all bad; there's a lot of drama in the race to piece together the evidence, interspersed with scenes of those involved heading unknowingly towards their disasters. If you can park your critical faculties and accept the preposterous premise at face value it becomes quite exciting. It could be one of those series that turns out to be so silly that it becomes addictive. I'll stick with it for the time being to see how it goes - provided of course that it decides to let me watch it (come on, now, it's not such a bad review, is it?).

Friday 27 November 2009

Interzone 225

The December issue of the SFF magazine features another strangely evocative cover from Adam Tredowski; a vast and incomprehensible machine - is it a spaceship? Is it wrecked? - at the foot of a misty cliff dwarfs the trees and two small, tailcoated human observers. The usual news and book, film and TV reviews are accompanied by only five stories this time, as they are longer than usual.

Here We Are, Falling Through Shadows, by Jason Sandford, illustrated by Mark Pexton: Earth has been invaded by creatures of angular shadow, dubbed Rippers, who absorb their victims into a barely-glimpsed, incomprehensible world of savage horror. A fireman struggles to protect his family in a disintegrating world.

By Starlight, by Rebecca J Payne: A renegade couple, detached from their home fleet, sail their wooden ship across the world. It only slowly becomes clear that they are not sailing on the ocean but up in the sky, forever wary of the Grounders living below. A glimpse into a mysteriously alien world.

The Killing Streets, by Colin Harvey, illustrated by Mark Pexton: More invading creatures eating the population, this time enormous genetically-engineered supermoles tunnelling at high speed to catch their victims, drawn by the sound of regular footprints (shades of the sandworms of Dune). That isn't the only horror to have escaped the laboratory in a world which has become despotic and stratified.

Funny Pages, by Lavie Tidhar, illustrated by Warwick Fraser-Coombe: Strange superheroes battle through and over the streets of Tel Aviv. A very different take on comic (in both senses) figures.

Bone Island, by Shannon Page & Jay Lake, illustrated by Mark Pexton: a remote present-day island, where different kinds of magic still hold sway in parallel with our normal world, sees two fearsome women battling over possession of a young man with a gift - and a responsibility.

The first and the last were the most memorable and I particular liked the quality of the writing in Bone Island, which is my pick from this issue.

Saturday 21 November 2009

Cosmic Engineers by Clifford D Simak

Yet another tale from 1950, although based on a 1939 short story. Like the Van Vogt books reviewed last week, Cosmic Engineers is set several thousand years into the future and also features a time when mankind has spread through the Solar System but not beyond. Two reporters are heading out to Pluto where a new type of spaceship is being prepared for a voyage to the stars. On the way they find a drifting spaceship which contains a young woman in suspended animation, whom they revive. It transpires that she is a mathematical genius whose brain has been active for the entire thousand years of her time in the ship, leading to her developing highly advanced mathematical concepts. On arrival at Pluto they find that the base has been receiving telepathic messages from outer space and discover that our entire universe is facing a terrible threat from which only they can save it.

The astrophysical concepts included in the story are astonishingly advanced and could easily be included in a story written today: the multiverse, colliding universes, mysterious energy between the universes and so on. On a more mundane level there are also a number of ideas which crop up in later works by other writers (which may be coincidental, of course). Unfortunately, this is all wrapped up in a decidedly old-fashioned tale, even taking account of the publication date.

Simak also wrote City, which is in my top-20 list of favourite SF books. This was published only a couple of years after Cosmic Engineers but is in my opinion a vastly better - and better written - book; it really is time I read that one again! Most of Simak's other work is worth reading but not as striking and memorable.

Cosmic Engineers is a strange combination of amazingly advanced ideas with a rather ordinary story written in a dated style. I much prefer the contemporary Van Vogt stories reviewed below; their fantastic elements seem more in the spirit of their period.

Friday 13 November 2009

The Weapon Shops of Isher, and The Weapon Makers, by A E Van Vogt

These books were first published in around 1950 although their content had previously appeared in magazines. They are set some seven thousand years hence in a future in which the Earth is ruled by an Empress with almost absolute power, opposed only by an organisation called "The Weapon Shops". This maintains invulnerable stores around the planet at which citizens can buy vastly more sophisticated energy guns than any available to the Imperium. Among other things, they feature what is known today as "smart" technology; they can only be fired by their owners, and only in self-defence. The shops are also smart, and won't let in Imperium employees. Their slogan is "The right to buy weapons is the right to be free".

In The Weapon Shops of Isher, a man from the present enters one of these shops which is briefly transported into our time, and finds himself carried into the far future. Most stories with a start like this would then focus on the adventures of the present-day hero, but Van Vogt is not so obvious; the man has a peripheral role although, as it turns out at the end, a pivotal one. The time displacement has been caused by the huge energies brought to bear in an attack on the Weapon Shops by the Empress, who has become tired of their resistance to her control, and the story is about the war between these two powers. Two other key characters are Cayle Clark, a young man of great potential from a country village who tries to make his way in the big city, and Robert Hedrock, the immortal man who first established the Weapon Shops thousands of years before and who covertly returns to them under different identities every few generations.

The Weapon Makers returns to the same setting a few years later. There is an uneasy stand-off between the Empress and the Weapon Shops, but this stability is threatened by a radical new invention which prompts a struggle for the future of the Imperium. The principal characters remain the same with the exception of Cayle Clark, who receives not a mention despite his key role in the previous work. This time the focus is firmly on Robert Hedrock, who pretends to be a traitor to the Weapon Shops in order to gain a position of trust with the Empress. But as his unique status is gradually revealed he finds himself under attack from all sides, including some all-powerful arachnoid aliens.

It is possible to pick lots of logical holes in these stories. The people in the future speak exactly the same brand of English as our present-day man. It is incredible that after thousands of years all of the resources of the Imperium could not find a way of duplicating or defeating Weapon Shop technology. Why only one man should be immortal, and how that happened, is not even addressed in the first story and not explained in the second, except as some sort of accident. The characterisation is also very thin (as always with SF stories of this era) although adequate to carry the story. However, these tales are rich with the famous "sense of wonder" and the optimistic view that all things are possible, and they are intended to be absorbed rather than critically analysed. They are arguably closer to fantasy than to SF.

There are also some strong points in the stories. The way in which Cayle Clark falls foul of the traps of the big city and the endemic corruption which prevents even the Empress from getting her way are convincingly portrayed. In fact, the first book is rather more involving than the second because of this focus on his personality and the way in which he reacts to his situation. Hedrock is a far more fantastic, less credible super-hero and the reader never doubts his ability to survive.

Despite the flaws, I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading these books (for the first time in four decades). It is unfair to apply the standards of modern literature to them; they are of their time, and what a time it was for SF!

Friday 6 November 2009

Odds & Ends

A catch-up with various items this week.

New Horizons is the British Fantasy Society's magazine of new fiction. Issue 3 has been with me for a while, but that pile by my bedside has been stacking up….The following stories are included:

Pastoral Effect by Adam J Shardlow: in a future of increasingly bloodthirsty reality TV shows, the perfect set-up has an unexpected result.

Happiness = G + V + C by Philip Suggars: when the formula for happiness has been determined, happiness becomes mandatory - or else.

Hunt by Debbie Bennett: a young hoodlum accidentally summons the supernatural Hunt; he has to choose a victim, or fall to the Hounds himself.

Seems Only Right by Mathew F Riley: a bizarre setting in which society, including interpersonal communication, is gradually breaking down.

Veronika by Douglas Thompson: a psychiatrist is drawn into the tangled world of a young female Goth.

Spring by Sophie Essex: a brief glimpse of an intense relationship; not really SFF.

Mr Smith by Philip Palmer: a reluctant superman has to face up to his responsibilities. Wryly amusing, this one is my favourite.

Next, Attica by Gary Kilworth. This fantasy novel follows three children moving into an old house which proves to have an attic stretching off into infinite distance, populated by various odd and supernatural beings. This promised to be intriguing, especially since it comes with a glowing endorsement from Neil Gaiman, but I found it sadly uninvolving. There is a lack of drama and tension; first one thing happens, then another, without any apparent logic or purpose. The children (who are supposed to be bright) spend much time trying to rationalise what they are experiencing and then behave with remarkable stupidity. The plotting has holes, too: they find a glass bottle which is important because it allows them to carry some water with them, but first we are told that one of the children goes off exploring, taking the bottle with him, then shortly afterwards the remaining two are drinking from it. I find that kind of carelessness irritating as it breaks the credibility bond between author and reader. I stopped reading the book about a quarter of the way through.

Moving from the page to the screen: I started watching a new (to UK TV) US SF series Defying Gravity. This is set a few decades in the future and concerns a manned six-year tour around several planets of the Solar System. The emphasis in the first couple of episodes was on the human relationships, with the technology and exploration very much secondary. This was not very promising (for me, anyway) but there were hints of something mysterious going on, some guiding intelligence lurking on board. I would have followed it for a bit longer to see if it developed into anything worthwhile, but first I managed to lose my recording of episode 3 and then the channel it is shown on became badly disrupted by the digital changeover and won't be worth looking at for the next month anyway. Some things are not meant to be…

Looking on the bright side, a new series of Spooks has just begun on a channel which I can receive. OK, it's not strictly SF but it's way beyond anything MI5 actually does and is consistently the most gripping thriller on TV. I'm relieved that the weekly episodes don't run to more than an hour - that's as much as my nerves can stand!

Finally, to the movies with X-Men 2 (better late than never…). A good follow-up to the original classy thriller, which really needs to have been seen first to make any sense of the sequel. The battle between two groups of mutants over their relationship to humanity continues. High drama with twists and turns, good acting and some of the tastiest mutants you could wish for, with Kelly Hu joining Famke Janssen, Halle Berry and Rebecca Romijn (I am still intrigued by how a ferocious female with scaly blue skin and yellow eyes can be so outrageously sexy). Sit back and enjoy!

Thursday 29 October 2009

The Worthing Saga by Orson Scott Card

The Worthing stories were among the first that Card ever wrote, and this volume bring together all of them: a novel, The Worthing Chronicle, and a collection of short stories set in the same universe. This is set in the far future, when humanity has spread unchallenged across many worlds. On one remote, medieval and insignificant world, a small isolated village lives peaceably as it has done for countless generations, until tragedy strikes: suddenly, they start suffering accidents and experiencing pain, something previously unknown. At the same time a couple of strangers enter the village, an old man and a young woman, who communicate only by telepathy. They stay at the inn and ask the innkeeper's son to write down their story, which they relay to him at night in vivid dreams. The book alternates between telling the story of events in the village, and of those in his dreams.

Long before, some people had developed the ability to read minds but were almost entirely wiped out in a fierce reaction against them; the survivors were all members of the Worthing family, and kept their ability (known as the Swipe) hidden. Human civilisation was highly sophisticated, with the more prominent citizens living for hundreds of years by the expedient of spending most of it asleep via the drug somec, only waking occasionally. The story being told in the dreams in that of the old man, Jason Worthing, who had spent thousands of years asleep. As the book progresses, the circumstances which led to Jason's arrival and the return of pain are gradually revealed.

The other stories in The Worthing Saga are divided into two groups, Tales of Capitol and Tales from the Forest of Waters. In both cases, they describe the same events with the same characters as are covered in the novel, but in more detail and from different perspectives. Tales of Capitol are set in the former capital planet of the human empire, entirely covered by one continuous building and nominally ruled for millennia by Mother, who wakes for one day every five years to check on progress. Tales from the Forest of Waters is set on a remote planet in which the Worthing family develop their psychic abilities.

The Tales of Capitol contain a story which made me smile wryly, about a woman who becomes famous simply by continuously recording every aspect of her life for sale to her fans. She eventually loses the ability to distinguish reality from the show she puts on for the recordings, including in her personal relationships. Judging by the publicity gained today by some "celebrities" who are famous for constantly parading their private lives in public, it seems that life is imitating fiction once again.

Overall, an interesting collection with an unusual setting. Relatively slow-paced but well told, focusing on what it is to be human. One key aspect of the Worthing universe leaves me puzzled, though – the attractions of somec. In Capitol society, the higher the ratio of sleep time to waking time, the higher the status. But people don't actually live any longer in subjective time, and in only waking occasionally for relatively brief periods they become separated from friends and family, and detached from society; surely increasingly lost and alienated as time goes by. Perhaps I'm missing something…

Friday 23 October 2009

New Scientist magazine

New Scientist magazine recently (19 September) included a special feature on SF under the heading "The Fiction of Now". It kicks off with an article by Kim Stanley Robinson who argues that British SF is currently in a golden age and is undeservedly ignored by the literati when it comes to nominations for literary prizes. This is followed by a series of very short stories, consisting of just a few paragraphs, by Ken Macleod, Ian McDonald, Nicola Griffith, Stephen Baxter, Paul McAuley, Ian Watson and Justina Robson. Geoff Ryman has a piece on what the world may really be like in 100 years, and there are reviews of novels by Greg Egan (Oceanic), Iain Banks (Transition), Margaret Attwood (The Year of the Flood), Fay Weldon (Chalcot Crescent) and Charles Stross (Wireless). All credit to the magazine for its occasional promotions of SF as well as its often thought-provoking summaries of current scientific developments and their potential implications.

A good example of the latter is the recent four-part series "Blueprint for a Better World", in which its contributors look beyond the usual gloomy forecasts to propose and justify a wide range of measures which could be introduced now in order to improve our prospects. They vary from the social through the political to big science projects. The proposals are often controversial (especially the social ones), such as legalising the use of drugs and collecting everyone's DNA profile at birth. Adopting genetic engineering as a way of boosting crop yields in drier environments also won't sit well with everyone. Putting more emphasis on living long, happy lives rather than accumulating material wealth through continuous economic growth is an interesting social idea; switching to a shorter working week (but working longer days) might achieve that as well as saving energy. Taxing carbon to encourage its economical use, plus encouraging local "green" power generation and eating less meat, all address global warming, but so does finding ways of cooling the planet (it now being too late to avoid significant warming just through reducing CO2 emissions). More generally (and in my opinion perhaps the most worthwhile, although also the most difficult) would be to promote rational decision-making rather than acting on gut feelings and superstition; especially on the part of politicians, but also the general population. The series finished with brief descriptions of twenty-nine of the most promising ideas in the field of green technology.

That issue (3 October) also considers the implications for the planet of the latest computer projections from the UK Meteorological Office which indicate that if we carry on as we are now, the Earth could warm by an average of 4°C within the next half-century. "Catastrophic" is a reasonable word to use for the forecast outcome as far humanity is concerned. It is still not too late to avoid this, given a serious and sustained global effort. Holding down the increase to just 2 degrees is still feasible; but it seems that the probability of that happening is no higher than 50:50. More and more political leaders are coming around to the realisation that this is a serious and rapidly growing problem which needs action now, but public acceptance of that is sluggish and unwilling if not resentful.

Another article considers how the planet might recover from runaway global warming and the associated mass extinctions, by examining the record in the rocks from the last time there was a period of rapid and substantial warming. This was the Palaeocene-Eocene thermal maximum of 55 million years ago, when the Earth heated by 9ºC over a period of a few thousand years. Hint: forget humanity, think rats and cockroaches…and maybe ten million years before biodiversity gets going again.

All in all, this is a magazine which constantly contains items of interest to any follower of science or SF (as well as many good ideas for SF writers!). Highly recommended.

Friday 16 October 2009

The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown

I've recently finished reading Dan Brown's latest epic, assured of massive sales by the phenomenal success of his previous book, The Da Vinci Code. I read TDVC when it first came out, before all of the public furore, and while I didn't think much of the author's writing style I was intrigued by the plot. This was obviously a mixture of fact and fiction and had me guessing as to which was which. It seems it had the author guessing as well, since he took literally a fictional source, but that didn't hurt sales.

The Lost Symbol has an entirely different plot, but it's basically more of the same. It once again features Robert Langdon as the resourceful, code-breaking professor hero. This time the action is more intense and confined, taking place within a small area of Washington DC over a period of just ten hours (which is almost as long as it takes to read the 500 page book). The focus of the plot has shifted away from the Roman Catholic Church and on to Freemasonry. Brown has obviously researched the Masons, their beliefs and rituals, in great depth, but I don't have the knowledge to judge whether his sources are more accurate this time.

The stylistic faults of Brown's other books remain. The writing is humourless and clunky with no subtlety or wit, the characters cartoonish, their relationships sketchy, the plot ludicrous. Finally, the conclusion is weak: the plot builds up a picture of deep secrets and mysterious but devastating consequences if they are revealed, but it all turns out to be a big fuss over nothing. However, the story gripped me sufficiently to keep me turning the pages and I read the last half of the book in one straight session, finishing in the early hours of the morning. That is something which I rarely do, so the story obviously has a strong appeal. What exactly is it?

The arcane "knowledge" which appears to fill the book is certainly an important part of it. There is the strong sense (not necessarily valid, as TDVC demonstrated) of being presented with a huge amount of material which allows the reader to get inside a secret world. He has also packed the book with those esoteric "can that be true?" nuggets, such as that the Christian practice of concluding a prayer with "Amen" actually derives from the worship of Amon, the Egyptian sun god (according to the Wiki entry on "amen", not true). By itself, this would be intriguing but not sufficient. What makes Brown's books so successful is that this material is wrapped up in a driving, relentless narrative which is all-action from start to finish, with more twists and turns than I could keep track of (including a real surprise close to the end).

Basically, to enjoy this book you need to park your critical faculties for the duration and just go with the flow. It will never win any literary prizes but it would be a good distraction on a long flight.

Friday 9 October 2009

Interzone 224

The September-October issue of this British SF magazine contains a departure from normal practice; instead of six short stories, there is one novella and four others.

The novella is Sublimation Angels by Jason Sandford, who has previously had a couple of well-liked, intriguing and rather weird short stories published in Interzone. This one is set in a distant, star-travelling future when humanity is largely managed by its AIs. The Aurals, incorporeal but powerful beings of light and energy, have been discovered but have refused to communicate except to a small group of explorers sent to occupy a remote planet in which the atmosphere has been frozen into solid form. Over the generations, the explorers revert to a primitive existence, always short of air (which has to be sublimated from its frozen state) and of warmth. The story focuses on the lives of some of these explorers and their relationship with the Aurals.

I was strongly reminded of Fritz Leiber's short story A Pail of Air which Sanford acknowledges in his dedication. This is set on a frozen Earth which has become detached from the Sun and despatched into interstellar space. The survivors, living underground, are forced to don spacesuits and venture onto the surface to scoop up buckets of frozen air to take back inside. Sublimation Angels is a well-written and involving tale, although I suspect that Leiber's much simpler but visceral and gritty story of survival will stay with me for longer.

No Longer You by Katherine Sparrow & Rachel Swirsky concerns a relationship in which the woman has a far more than singular interest in the man…a strange tale of multiple personalities.

Shucked by Adrian Joyce is a surreal horror story about the spirit of a demonic hound able to absorb and animate people – and even a coffee machine (that explains a lot…).

The Godfall's Chemsong by Jeremiah Tolbert is set on a planet among intelligent aliens who live on the seabed, communicating by scent – "chemsong" – and living off "godfall"; bodies which fall from above. Surely the first time that humans have featured in a story solely as carrion.

The Festival of Tethselem by Chris Butler initially has what appears to be a traditional plot in which a pair of thieves visit a planet to steal a sacred statue, only to discover that the statue has some very peculiar properties indeed, providing an unexpected ending.

Illustrations are by Adam Tredowski with an atmospheric cover of a landscape full of alien structures (I like that sort of thing – it reminds me of what first drew me to SF), with Paul Drummond, Mark Pexton, Dave Senecal and Martin Bland illustrating the stories.

Other features include an interview with Robert Holdstock focusing on his new book, Avilion. I must get this one as it is a sequel to Mythago Wood, the eerie tale of ancient wood magic which made a strong impression on me when I read it a couple of decades ago. There are several other book reviews as well as the usual emphasis on recent films and TV programmes. In the news section, I was sorry to hear of the death of Paul O. Williams (no relation – as far as I know) an academic who published the impressive seven-book Pelbar Cycle in the early 1980s, a complex tale set in a far-future USA which has reverted to a more primitive level of existence. I still have my set to re-read sometime.
I recently saw Angels and Demons, the film based on the Dan Brown book. From what I can recall of the book, the film follows its plot quite closely (which is not much of a compliment). This results in the pace being frantic and the characterisation minimal. As such things go, it's not a bad popcorn movie but it takes itself too seriously; there isn’t an (intended) smile in the whole film. Probably best enjoyed with a slightly drunken audience making ribald remarks at (in)appropriate moments. One minor detail for car enthusiasts: a new Lancia Delta is given a prominent role (I wonder how much they paid for that?). Lancias have of course not been imported into the UK for over twenty years since they demonstrated a positively alchemical ability to convert car body steel into rust. They keep promising to return, but no sign so far.

Friday 2 October 2009

Ultrameta by Douglas Thompson

Ultrameta is one of the strangest novels I've ever read. It tells the extraordinary story of the enigmatic Alexander Stark, a professor of English at Glasgow University, who disappears for ten years. During that time, his wife receives a series of notes from him, accounts of the life – or rather lives – he is leading. The novel consists of these accounts, occasionally interspersed with conversations between the detective and the journalist who are working together to solve the mystery of Stark's disappearance and who gradually become obsessed with their search, to their cost.

The accounts vary wildly; it seems that Stark is many different people, sometimes women, and that he kills himself at the end of each account, only to awaken in a new body with no memory of who he is or of any of his past lives. His only link with continuity are the Keepers he has appointed to watch over him and track down each incarnation, preserving his scribbled accounts. Stark's role, it seems, is to be an observer of humankind, a blank tablet absorbing what he sees on each awakening.

The situations he finds himself in vary in time and in tone, between the surreal (the strongest element), fantasy, SF and horror. Overall, this book is very hard to categorise and might best be designated "slipstream"; that catch-all title for unreal fiction which doesn't easily fit into anything else. The accounts are linked to each other by the device of having most of them start with the protagonist finishing reading the previous account. This reminds me of a short animated film I saw many years ago, which consisted of the camera zooming away from a series of images, each in turn becoming a minor element within the next to be revealed.

The quality of the writing is exceptional, often poetic. One example, concerning the way in which clouds fascinated him as a young boy:

"And the clouds seemed to say: Remember us, we are the guardians of your dreams, the scouts of your future, the memorials of your regrets. Remember how we first awoke you as you became aware, a child in your cot on summer evenings, laughing, smiling at the honey flavour of life's light. It was us your eyes first looked up to. Or later, on bored windy afternoons, you watched grey stormclouds racing in battle formation and prepared for the world's end. Or going on holiday, looking from car windows, you watched our white galleons drifting in the ocean of blue up ahead, dancing with distant peaks, like ice cubes in lemonade, we sang of summer and glamour."

It is hard, if not impossible, to make sense of exactly what is going on, even after finishing the book. However, the quality of the writing and the surreal and intriguing stories caught my imagination. This is one book I'll be keeping for another read – at least.

Friday 25 September 2009

Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell

Nineteen Eighty-Four is one of the very few SFF novels to have made the leap not just to mainstream acceptability but to being regarded as literature. This was probably because George Orwell was not really a genre writer, he was primarily interested in using fiction, sometimes including fantastic situations, to reflect and satirise what he saw as trends in society. This is most obvious in his novel Animal Farm, which used animals to show humans in a comically unflattering light. 1984 does the same thing, but without the comedy; it is a much more polemical and bitter novel.

It is a very long time since I last read this book and I had forgotten almost everything about it except for its general theme, so I was pleased when it was selected for the Classic Science Fiction discussion group.

1984 is a dreadful warning of what the world might become if the tendency towards all-powerful controlling dictatorships, as exemplified in primitive form by Nazi Germany and much more so by Stalin's USSR, were developed to its logical conclusion. The story is set thirty-five years after the novel was first published in 1949; since then we could add Mao's China, Hoxha's Albania, Pol Pot's Cambodia and North Korea to the list of comparators. In Orwell's novel, the world has become divided into three huge power blocks; Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia. They are, allegedly, in a state of constant warfare with alliances changing every few years. The protagonist, Winston Smith, is a humble member of the ruling (and only) political party of Oceania, whose inspirational figurehead is "Big Brother". Not only does Big Brother's face look down from posters everywhere under the famous slogan "Big Brother is watching you" but he, or rather his minions in The Party's Thought Police, are indeed watching every Party member via two-way telescreens in every home and workplace.

The Party brooks not the slightest dissent from its members; any expressions of disloyalty, even insufficiently reverential expressions when Big Brother was mentioned, could be enough for the Thought Police to come calling in the middle of the night. Those so removed were hardly ever seen or heard from again, except when confessing to a long list of crimes before their inevitable execution. Not only that, but their existence was expunged from the records; Winston Smith's endless job involves rewriting old newspaper reports to remove any mention of such people. He also rewrites official proclamations when these have been proved to be wrong, most obviously when Oceania switches allies from Eastasia to Eurasia; The Party line is that whichever of these is the enemy has always been the enemy, and all books and other records must reflect that.

Complete control of the news and of history, constant monitoring of Party members and ruthless crushing of dissent combine to provide The Party with absolute power and control. This is reinforced by the constant effort to rewrite the language into "Newspeak"; a greatly simplified and abbreviated version of English designed to make it impossible to think subversive thoughts, since the language of subversion will no longer be available. All words describing any thoughts and concepts forbidden by The Party are replaced by one: "thoughtcrime".

At the time of the novel, the restructuring of the language has not been completed and traditional English is still in common use, Newspeak being mainly for official purposes. Winston Smith becomes increasingly disillusioned with his work and his life and harbours rebellious thoughts. He forms a forbidden liaison with a young woman, Julia, and together they go in search of the Brotherhood, which is supposedly a secret organisation devoted to the overthrow of The Party. This is no Hollywood film plot, however, and there is no happy ending.

1984 can be considered in two ways: as an SF novel, and as a warning of what the future might hold. As a novel, it is a mixed bag. Winston Smith's journey towards outright rebellion and its consequences is grimly compelling. However, the author is too concerned to get his message across, to extent that he beats the reader over the head with a very long extract from a forbidden book supposedly written by a critic of The Party. The polemic casts a heavy shadow over the story.

Clearly, the world did not develop as Orwell outlined, and North Korea is the only country which currently resembles Oceania. However, there are occasional reflections of his concerns in our societies today. Politicians are notorious for being economical with the truth, trying to present failure as success, claimed the credit for accidental good fortune and rewriting history if they get the chance. Government surveillance of its citizens has never been greater, with CCTV systems proliferating and the large-scale monitoring of electronic correspondence.

Taking everything into consideration, 1984 is justifiably famous and is one of the few books that everyone (not just SF fans) should read to complete their education. Its portrayal of what could happen stands as a warning to us, and to future generations.

Friday 18 September 2009

Old Man's War by John Scalzi, and Surface

The time is the far future, when humanity has spread to many star systems but finds itself in constant conflict with the scores of alien races who are competing for habitable planets. The Colonial Defence Forces (CDF) wage war on humanity's behalf, and have developed into a powerful organisation. They constantly recruit from Earth, but take only old people facing death who have nothing to lose; they have to declare their intention to join at age 65, and finally join up when they are ten years older. These elderly recruits don't know what to expect as no-one ever returns from the CDF; they are officially declared dead when they join.

Old Man's War is the first-person account of one such recruit, John Perry. It describes the transformation which turns him into an efficient fighting machine, his training, the friends he makes and what happens to all of them as they face the appalling death rates of combat against a varied selection of aliens.

If this plot sounds rather familiar, it is: there are strong echoes of Heinlein's Starship Troopers and Haldeman's The Forever War (both reviewed earlier this year on this blog – see the links in the review list on the left). Scalzi's book is more enjoyable and entertaining than either and I read it in two sessions, but it suffers from a lack of originality – it is too obviously derivative.

I also had a few problems with the plot. The first ones won't mean much to you unless you've read the book: if the Ghost Brigades were so superior, why withhold their advanced capabilities from the ordinary soldiers? In fact, why bother with the ordinary soldiers at all? The other issue is a more fundamental one: nations are already developing unmanned combat planes and vehicles which have a combination of self-guidance and remote control. It is hard to imagine that in a future of advanced technology, such robotic fighting machines will not be far more efficient than sending live soldiers down to fight, however enhanced they may be.

To sum up, it's the kind of book which is fun to read but not particularly memorable. I read it because it was on the reading list for the Modern Science Fiction discussion group. There are sequels which I may read someday, but they would be way down my priority list.

I thought I'd give this US TV adventure series, now being shown on UK TV, a spin to see how it went. The start is not that unusual – mysterious events at sea, with blurred or fragmentary sightings of sea monsters, ranging from small newly-hatched ones to giant leviathans. They appear to be emerging from caverns deep under the ocean floor.

The suspense is well maintained in the first episode, as a varied group of people (some of whom seem to have some idea of what's happening) try to keep up with developments. It is less hysterical (and bloody) than many such stories, and the writers evidently made use of the considerable length (fifteen episodes) to develop the plot slowly while establishing the characters. In the next couple of episodes it seemed to be settling down into a fairly routine cover-up conspiracy plot, and sadly became less and less credible. I can suspend disbelief sufficiently to accept monsters emerging from the deep, but ones which can live in magma? At that point I stopped watching.
I have posted my review of Where is Everybody? Fifty Solutions to the Fermi Paradox on my website for easy reference, HERE.

Saturday 12 September 2009

Movie Time

Three recent SFF movies I've seen:

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

I enjoyed the first of the 'Mummy' films as a kind of entertaining low-rent version of an Indiana Jones movie, so saw the sequel (which wasn't as good) and recently watched the third – unfortunately. Rachel Weiss no longer features (a shame, she shone in the first two) and I found the plot very derivative, the action rather tedious and repetitive, the dialogue corny and most of the acting clunky. The CGI was good but this is expected nowadays. The main reason to watch it is Michelle Yeoh, who is always worth seeing and is the class act of the film. I see that most critics rated it as being on a par with the other films so perhaps I was just in a critical mood, or I've just got tired of the formula.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

This is the latest in the series of adaptations of J K Rowling's books. I can't comment on how it compares with the book because I haven't read it, or indeed any of them except for the first. I have, however, seen all of the films. That's just as well, because I suspect that anyone who sees this film without knowing the backstory would have no idea what was going on. It's just an episode in a continuous tale, with nothing from the earlier films explained and an abrupt ending leaving nothing resolved.

There are only two major plot developments in the film (I won't spoil the surprise by revealing them). The rest of the story focuses on the relationships between the students, who have now reached an age when the opposite sex begins to obsess them. The problem is that this really doesn't work that well. Harry is supposed to be in love with Ginny but we would never guess if we weren't told – there is not a spark of chemistry between them – and the idea that the brilliant (and now very attractive) Hermione could be passionate about the plodding Ron Weasley lacks any credibility; not even Emma Watson's superior acting skills could make that believable.

The film maker's task of doing justice to the books is evidently becoming steadily more difficult as the book length increases with each novel. Really, they can't win; miss out any significant characters or events and there will be howls of protest from the fans, but try to include everything and the result is lots of brief and unexplained snippets. As a result, some characters who are obviously of significance in the books briefly pop in and out of the films with little or no explanation, Remus Lupin being one of them. Harry is repeatedly referred to as "the chosen one" but displays no special talents compared with the other young wizards. Even the title of the book is unexplained; we find out at the end who the "half-blood prince" is, but no indication of why he has that title or what the significance might be. I see that the film of the final book will be split into two parts, so evidently the film-makers have admitted defeat!

Despite these criticisms this is a reasonably entertaining film, but it is perhaps the least successful of the series in dramatic terms.

District 9

A new SF film set in the near future (currently on limited release in the UK), concerning what happens when a vast alien spaceship arrives on Earth, finally coming to rest in the sky a few thousand feet above Johannesburg in South Africa. Nothing happens for three months, after which humans decide to cut their way in. To their astonishment, they find a million starving, helpless aliens, who bear a close resemblance to human-sized crustaceans and are promptly dubbed "Prawns". The Prawns are evacuated from the ship and moved into a camp beneath it, in a zone which soon becomes a huge shanty-town called "District 9". Humans and Prawns are unable to speak each other's languages (the impressively alien-sounding Prawn speech could never come from a human throat) but do learn to understand each other.

The action in the film takes place twenty years later, when the Prawn population has nearly doubled. The Prawns live sordid lives at a basic subsistence level, with no indication of understanding the sophisticated technology of their spacecraft and weapon systems; these are useless to humans as they can only be operated by those with Prawn DNA. District 9 is officially looked after by an organisation called "Multinational United" (MNU), effectively a private security firm, but is unofficially controlled by Nigerian gangsters who exploit the Prawns.

Increasing resentment from the local human population has prompted a plan to relocate the Prawn community to a secure zone in a remote area of the country. MNU is given the task under the leadership of Wikus van de Merwe; a well-meaning but ineffectual administrator who happens to be the son-in-law of the director of MNU. What happens is told partly in flash-back by commentators apparently appearing in a TV documentary, but mostly in real time.

The relocation attempt is met by resistance, brutally handled by the military wing of the MNU over the protests of Wikus. As a result of a bizarre accident, Wikus absorbs alien DNA and begins to acquire Prawn characteristics. He instantly becomes an extremely valuable possession since he can now operate Prawn weapons, and he finds himself on the run from both his former employers and the gangsters. One of the Prawns, called Christopher (they have all been given human names), is gradually revealed to know far more about their technology than any Prawn has admitted, and he and Wikus end up fighting for survival together.

It is no accident that the film was set (and made) in South Africa; it is based on historical events during the apartheid era and the parallels are obvious. The plot is intelligent and gripping, the ending well-handled with a convincing blend of success and rather touching failure, plus room for a possible sequel. Definitely well worth watching. Be warned though, some scenes are gruesome enough to belong to a horror movie and are not for the squeamish, although judging by admiring comments from younger members of the audience I suspect that I am less inured to such scenes than most modern cinema-goers.

A footnote for weapon geeks like me: the film makers were evidently able to raid the stock of the giant South African armaments firm Denel. The MNU's standard rifle was the Vektor CR-21 assault rifle, a bullpup version of the Kalashnikov in a futuristic-looking synthetic stock, which has in reality not entered service. A couple of other weapons shown in use were the formidable Mechem NTW-20 high-velocity 20mm anti-materiel rifle, and one gun I have a soft spot for, the Neopup PAW-20, a low-velocity semi-automatic 20mm rifle. The PAW-20 has also yet to enter service (although it was on display at DSEi this week), but this is (at least) its second outing in fiction, following on from its inclusion in my own SF novel, Scales. There is another parallel with my novel in that my hero also changes dramatically as a result of absorbing alien DNA, although the rest of the story is entirely different. You can read my article on the PAW-20 HERE, and read reviews plus download Scales for free HERE.

Friday 4 September 2009

On Immortality

The concept of human immortality has always had huge appeal. Somehow, we never seem to accept the fact that it is necessary for us to die. This is perhaps most marked in our modern society, in which medical science has done so much to counter the causes of premature death. As a result, death has become something of a taboo subject, which most people are reluctant to face up to. This is well illustrated in the UK by the current confusion and controversy over the "right to die" of the terminally ill.

Lacking the ability to prolong physical life, some people have sought immortality symbolically, in making their mark on history through building territorial or business empires or producing works of art, literature or architecture. Most people probably see their children as providing some stake in the future, some continuity of their genes if not themselves. But it's immortality of the physical self which is seen as the holy grail; as Woody Allen put it:

I don't want to achieve immortality through my work... I want to achieve it through not dying.

Medical science is doing its best to oblige, with vast sums being spent on research into the causes of ageing; there's an entire scientific community devoted to finding ways to prolong life. Few people seem to question whether this is a sensible activity, although there are plenty of warnings in SF about the consequences should they succeed. The world's population is currently around 6.4 billion and is rising steadily; projections of future growth take the total to around 9 billion by the middle of this century, at which point the estimates more or less level off, with the population in the 22nd century being within the 8 to 10 billion band. In comparison, estimates of the maximum supportable population of this planet, taking into account all of the natural resources available and assuming a minimum standard of living (adequate food, housing, fresh water etc), put the sustainable capacity as between 2 and 4 billion. This is without taking into account the possible long-term consequences of climate change, which on current projections seem likely to reduce the area of productive agricultural land due to a combination of continental drought and the flooding of coastal areas. This is not a favourable scenario in which to come up with a method of prolonging individual life.

However, let us assume for the sake of argument that these problems are overcome in some way and we end up with a sustainable population. This doesn't remove the difficulties cause by a major extension of life expectancy. If the population is to remain sustainable it needs to be constant – which means that babies can be born only at the rate at which people die. The more successful medical science is in preventing ageing, the fewer children can be born. There will be an awful lot of frustrated parents out there. The whole shape of society would change, with children becoming a rare and precious commodity. Perhaps as a result the anti-ageing treatments would be reserved for the fortunate few – the rich, or those in political power – which would create a different set of tensions.

Even for those who might benefit from an indefinitely extended life, the consequences are not all rosy. For a start, the concept of retirement would disappear – most people would have to work for as long as they lived. Current pension arrangements are failing to keep up with the gradual increase in lifespan as it is; they would collapse completely if this were extended significantly, let alone indefinitely. People would only be able to retire if they accumulated so many savings that, when invested, they earned enough interest to keep up with inflation plus provide a liveable income on top. If future economies are anything like those of our current society, only a small percentage of the population would be likely to achieve that, and it would take most of them a very long time.

Clearly, indefinite life would have major implications for employment. Not only would the new immortals be faced with an eternity of work; they would become "job blockers", preventing younger people from gaining promotions or even from obtaining jobs at all. Sheer tedium seems likely to become the normal state of living.

When people discuss the benefits of extended life, they often talk enthusiastically about how they would at last have the time to learn skills they've always wanted to have: playing a musical instrument, learning a foreign language or becoming an artist. Frankly, I believe this is wishful thinking. Our lives are already long enough for people to do all of those things if they really want to. If they don't, it's because they're not sufficiently interested to put in the effort required, and that's not likely to change with a longer life. In fact, such abilities are best learned young, while the brain is still flexible enough to pick up new skills easily. For instance, if you want to learn to speak a foreign language without an accent, you normally have to do it before the age of twelve. As we get older and our personalities develop, out brains gradually get used to running in certain ruts; opinions become formed, skill-sets determined, creativity tends to diminish. As the saying goes, "you can't teach an old dog new tricks".

This particular consequence of ageing has been the subject of many epigrams. Here's a couple I like:

I used to dread getting older because I thought I would not be able to do all the things I wanted to do, but now that I am older I find out I don't want to do them. (Nancy Astor)

You can judge your age by the amount of pain you feel when you come in contact with a new idea. (Pearl S. Buck)

This mental fossilisation was well imagined in Larry Niven's short story "The Ethics of Madness", in which a man who has received immortality treatment is pursued in his spaceship for centuries by an automated weapon:

He was totally a man of habits now. He had not had an original thought in centuries. The ship's clock governed his life in every detail, taking him to the autodoc or the kitchen or the gym or the steam room or the bedroom or the bathroom. You'd have thought that he was an ancient robot following a circular tape, no longer able to respond to outside stimuli.

A way of avoiding the practical problems of physical immortality is to achieve a form of virtual survival. One version of this remains a strong selling point of religions; they have adopted the concept of the "soul" (or similar) which can survive after death. Even better, they try to tie their followers to them by promising a wonderful afterlife only to those who obey their laws (and therefore their religious leaders). This has proved compellingly attractive (for the religious leaders as well as their followers). The fact that there are many religions competing for customers, all offering different versions of religious law and blissful afterlife (of which only one, at the most, could be valid), doesn't seem to dampen enthusiasm.

More recently, futurologists and SF authors have explored the possibility of a different form of virtual survival – by having one's personality uploaded into a computer. This would be no simple matter as the human brain is vastly more complex than any computer yet devised or on the horizon, but let's assume that it becomes possible to create such a computer and to find a way of exactly duplicating all of the neural connections and electrochemical conditions which make up an individual's personality. What would result? Only a copy of ourselves, a kind of twin sibling, whose personality would immediately begin to diverge from our own. For ourselves to be "uploaded" would require the identification of a unique and fundamental aspect of our mind which was our true self, separate from the brain and capable of being transferred from one brain to another but not capable of being copied (otherwise it wouldn't be unique). In other words, a "soul". There is no evidence that this exists, and this notion puts such virtual immortality into the same camp as religious afterlife.

However, let's assume that such a personality transfer is possible. What would it be like? The idea of living a virtual life for ever has a certain appeal (especially if one is coming to the end of one's physical life) but all would not necessarily be rosy. Apart from concerns about the consequences of software bugs and viruses, what would it be like to be divorced from physical reality, to know that you didn't actually exist outside of an electronic box? I suspect that there would be a strong tendency for people cut loose from their roots, from their lifelong perspective of who they were, from any concept of purpose or reason, to slide gradually into insanity. After all, they'd have forever to think about it…

All in all, this hankering after eternal life looks like a worse idea the more I consider it. Our physical and mental development is constructed around the idea of seasons in life – of passing through stages from childhood through adolescence to adulthood, maturity and old age, before we shuffle off this mortal coil. Apart from the practical problems I've discussed, a major extension to the length of our lives may do nothing to improve the overall quality of our existence; and immortality of any kind (physical or virtual) would, I suspect, eventually turn out to be appalling.

Friday 28 August 2009

The Palace of Eternity by Bob Shaw

I have previously reviewed another of Bob Shaw's books, Night Walk (September 2007). In that review, I said the following: "Shaw is one of my favourite SF authors: from the 1960s until his death in the mid-1990s he wrote 26 novels plus a large number of short stories. Most of his novels were stand-alones, set in a wide variety of environments and with equally varied plots and themes. All were quite short by modern standards, fast-paced and intelligently written, and he was a great story-teller; his books are hard to put down."

The Palace of Eternity is another highly original work, with Shaw's trademark tight plotting and concise story-telling (it's only 170 pages). The hook is in the first sentence; who could resist reading on after this? "In spite of all of his efforts, Tavernor was unable to remain indoors when it was time for the sky to catch fire".

This is a difficult story to review without revealing the plot, as there is a dramatic development just over half-way through which changes the nature and direction of the story. So I'll divide this into two; the first part contains no spoilers, the second should be avoided by anyone who wants to read the book for themselves.

The story is set in the distant future, when humanity has spread over many star systems in FTL ships boosted up to tachyon drive speed by Bussard ramjets, called "butterfly ships" after the shape of the intense magnetic fields which spread for hundreds of miles around them. Only one other technological intelligent species has been discovered, the Syccans, who attacked on sight, ignored all attempts at communication, and for decades had been devoting all of their efforts to exterminating humanity, with growing success despite their failure to use butterfly ships. They are a vaguely humanoid but unpleasant-looking species.

In passing, the story makes an interesting point which echoes the conclusions of my review of Where is Everybody? (8 May 09): that while there have been countless advanced civilisations throughout the galaxy's history, each has a relatively short life-span of a few thousand years and, given the vast age of the galaxy, it is very rare for two to exist at the same time.

The story is set on the human-settled world of Mnemosyne, noted for its artistic invention and also for its own asteroid belt which prevents the butterfly ships from coming too close. This sleepy world is abruptly transformed when, for some inexplicable reason, humanity's war HQ is moved there. The hero of the story is Mack Tavernor, orphaned by a Syccan raid at the age of eight and carrying a massive burden of guilt which drove him to join the military and become a highly-decorated war hero before retiring to Mnemosyne. He is the traditional "competent man" of SF, and a loner who keeps others at a distance.

So far this seems like a traditional, not to say hackneyed, humanity v. the evil aliens action adventure tale, but the plot develops to be much wider than that, concerning the true nature of life in the universe and the future of humanity.

That's about as much as I can say without spoilers. If you want to read the book for yourself, stop reading NOW!


Mack Tavernor unwillingly becomes involved with some Mnemosyne residents who are resisting the military occupation, and is killed.

He regains consciousness as an egon, a self-sustaining energy pattern, in company with countless billions of others drifting in space around the planet. He discovers that egons are immortal beings who can reproduce, but in order to develop properly need to spend time as an integral part of a complex biological mind – a human or other intelligent being. New egons therefore link up with new human life and stay with it until death, when they are released to rejoin the other egons in space. They are the origin of human notions of the soul and spirit worlds, and the subconscious link between egons and humanity is also the source of human inspiration. He also discovers that humanity is unwittingly causing devastation because the egons can be destroyed – if they come within reach of the powerful electromagnetic fields of the butterfly ships. The space immediately around Mnemosyne is protected by its asteroid belt, so all of humanity's space-travelling egons have concentrated there, accounting for the artistic invention rife on the planet. The havoc wrought by the butterfly ships also accounts for the Syccan attacks, because they are in conscious contact with their egons.

Tavernor is selected by the "mother mass", the combined mind of the egons, to help resolve the problem of the butterfly ships by returning to the planet's surface to occupy a human body again; initially, with no knowledge of his egon origins. What follows brings more revelations as the new Tavernor becomes caught up in a Syccan invasion, and there is a final twist in the tale concerning the future evolution of humanity.

As with most SF of this era, the brevity of the book precludes much in the way of characterisation, but the story is well worth reading for the compelling action and, above all, the great ideas.

Friday 21 August 2009

Leviathan Rising by Jonathan Green

An alternative Earth in which Queen Victoria still reigns after 160 years and Magna Britannia rules the waves. This is the setting for the Pax Britannia series, of which this is one of the most recent. I haven't read any of the other stories in the series, but that didn't spoil my enjoyment of this one. The hero, dandy and British agent Ulysses Quicksilver, accompanied by his trusty and resourceful valet Nimrod, refers to various previous and picaresque-sounding adventures but none have any bearing on the story of Leviathan Rising.

The plot concerns the maiden voyage of a huge and luxurious new submersible cruise-liner, the Neptune, able to visit exotic underground cities as well as more conventional resorts. An assortment of VIP guests, including Quicksilver, has been invited along, but their pleasure is soon spoiled as one of them is murdered. Not long afterwards, the Neptune sinks out of control to the sea bed, and Quicksilver has to use all of his resourcefulness and courage to save the steadily dwindling band of survivors from various fantastical perils of the deep while solving the mystery of who is guilty of murder and sabotage.

A novella, Vanishing Point, is included in the same volume (from Abbadon Books). This features the same hero, this time involved in a country house séance mystery which turns out to involve international espionage.

I gather that this sub-genre is known nowadays as "steampunk", although the term which coined itself in my mind when I read it was "retrofantasy". If you enjoy Jules Verne, H G Wells or the adventure thrillers of Arthur Conan Doyle, you'll love these tales. The first retrofantasy I can recall reading was Harry Harrison's 1972 novel A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! written very much in the style of the period, as the title suggests. Another comparator from the 1960s and 1970s (also set in an alternate Victorian-style but contemporary world) would be the Lord Darcy tales by Randall Garrett, which differed in including magic. More recently, I can recall reading the 1990 novel The Difference Engine by Gibson and Sterling, about an earlier development of computing in an alternate Victorian England.

I'm not a particular fan of this sub-genre, which seems to have an appeal (presumably greater for British than for other audiences) for a time of confidence and certainty, when technology marched relentlessly forward, nothing seemed impossible, and (of course) Britannia ruled the waves. However, I enjoyed Green's stories; good, old-fashioned entertainment with a nostalgic air.

Friday 14 August 2009

The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick (1928-82) was not one of the widely famous, best-selling SF authors like Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke or Frank Herbert. Despite this, he earned a high reputation as an innovative and thoughtful writer, with a probably unmatched record for the genre in having nine of his stories being used as the basis for Hollywood films, most notably for Blade Runner, Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly and Minority Report.

I have to admit that although I read many of his stories in the 1960s (along with all the other SF I could get my hands on), I was not a particular Dick fan, and the only one I still have is The Man in the High Castle, which won the Hugo award for best SF novel in 1963. I read it so long ago that I could not recall what it was about, so I was pleased when it was selected as the monthly read for the Classic Science Fiction discussion group.

The setting is a contemporary 1960s America – but one in which the Axis powers won World War 2. Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany subsequently divided up the world between them, including the USA of which the western zone fell into the Japanese sphere and the eastern to Germany. There isn't much explanation of how this came about, just a few odd comments such as the defeat of the RAF by the Luftwaffe which took the UK out of the war, thereby denying the USA any possibility of involvement in the European theatre. This isn't a military alternative WW2 (like my own novel The Foresight War, for instance), the focus is instead on the lives of a disparate group of loosely connected people (Americans, Japanese and Germans) living in both zones of America. There are some nice details about the implications of such a change in history: long-distance travel is by rocket-powered exo-atmospheric planes and manned trips are launched to Mars, but TV is still in its infancy and only available in Germany.

Dick is particularly good at portraying what it would be like for Americans living in the Japanese sphere, especially the anxiety to understand and conform to the Japanese mentality and thereby avoid giving offence, on the part of those who wish to be successful in business. Even the thoughts of the Americans doing business with the Japanese are represented in a clipped Japanese fashion. The author's treatment of the Japanese overlords is surprisingly sympathetic, even rather admiring, in stark contrast to his portrayal of the Nazis.

Two central motifs of the story are the extensive use of divination using the I Ching (I remember that one from my student days in the 1960s!) and the controversial popularity of an alternative history novel ('The Grasshopper Lies Heavy') which portrays a world in which the Axis powers were defeated. Interestingly, this is not the world we know; Churchill remains in power for twenty years, for instance, and the UK retains a dominant world position. There is no real explanation for these differences. The meaning of this novel within a novel gradually comes to dominate the story until the enigmatic climax.

All in all, this is an unusual, intelligent, thoughtful and well-written tale which is worth reading even if you are not a fan of alternative histories.

Friday 31 July 2009

Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco, and Coyote by Alan Steele

Two books for the price of one this week, simply because I didn't finish either of them. This has happened several times recently, which I find rather exasperating. It seems to affect recently-written books rather than the old classics. The main problem is their length: the more of my precious time they take to read, the better they have to be before I slog on to the end. The two this week both showed initial promise which didn't last.
Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco concerns an actual device of that name made to demonstrate the rotation of the Earth (the track of the pendulum gradually changes over time). In the 1988 novel, it has a symbolic significance (although not one which is at all obvious for much of the book).

The plot is a satire on ancient international occult conspiracy theories. The Knights Templar are in there, of course, as are the Rosicrucians, secret codes and the Holy Grail. The story focuses on three men who work for an Italian publishing house, which among other things churns out self-published books on such conspiracy theories. They decide they can do better and invent their own theory which links into the others, only to find that some people are taking that very seriously…

I was looking forward to reading this book and expected to enjoy it but I have to say that I found it very hard going. It is exceedingly long-winded and rambles about all over the place, packing in a vast number of references, most of which I failed to recognise. I struggled with it intermittently for a couple of weeks but kept finding that I'd lost the thread and was becoming increasingly reluctant to pick it up, so I eventually admitted defeat when about half-way through its 700 pages.

If you're interested to know more about this book you can read the Wiki entry
but be warned, it contains a comprehensive description of the plot with many spoilers.
There are two problems with Coyote by Allen Steele (the book chosen for August's Modern Science Fiction discussion group), both of which are similar to those which afflicted another long book I failed to finish recently, Silverberg's The Alien Years. One is that the plot is over-familiar; in this case a colonisation attempt by a human starship on an apparently suitable world free of intelligent life, which turns out to have hidden dangers which pose problems for the colonists. The other is that the focus is very much on the people and their sometimes antagonistic relationships, in exhaustive detail. I am also reminded of another long book which I never finished because of this second characteristic, S.M.Stirling's Island in the Sea of Time.

Despite this, Coyote is acceptably well-written, often excitingly so. The early chapters in particular, dealing with the gradually-revealed plot by dissidents within a future fragmented America to hijack the starship, are full of page-turning tension. The familiarity sets in as the colonists arrive at their destination and begin to establish themselves, with all the usual problems and hardships. With only a few plot changes, this could be about the survivors of a vessel shipwrecked on a deserted island in the days of sail, or indeed any pioneers trying to establish a community in virgin territory. I felt that the SF element was very much in the background rather than central to the story.

It makes an instructive contrast with Cherryh's Foreigner, reviewed earlier in this blog. This also concerns human colonists trying to establish themselves on a new world after a one-way trip, but this planet turns out to be already occupied by an intelligent humanoid race. The focus of that story is on the relationship between the humans and the aliens and that held my attention throughout, despite the book's length and Cherryh's slow-paced writing.

I did manage to get more than halfway through Coyote, but then gave up due to steadily declining interest. However, if you like this kind of plot and approach to story-telling, you may well enjoy this book. There are also a couple of sequels.

The Carrington Event

If global warming plus the possibility of a major asteroid strike aren't enough to worry about, there's another threat to our civilisation reported in the New Scientist magazine of 23rd March 2009. No doubt some SF writers and film-makers are beavering away at disaster stories based on this already – or maybe this one is a bit too grim.

It concerns storms on the surface of the sun which throw out plasma balls, a process known as coronal mass ejection (CME). These fly through space at high velocity and occasionally connect with the Earth. They vary a lot in size and small ones are common, but if a giant one hits the Earth, we are in trouble deep. This is no idle threat; the outcome of such a major geomagnetic storm is described in a report funded by NASA and issued by the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in January 2009. Furthermore, such an event has already happened, in 1859, as reported by the British astronomer Richard Carrington. This caused stunning auroras even at equatorial latitudes and severely disrupted telegraph networks. The consequences of an event on a similar scale today would be far worse.

Our problem is that in the 150 years since the Carrington event we have become much more vulnerable to its effects. Satellite communication and navigation systems in the CME's path would be fried. Much worse, the long cable lines of our electricity grids would act as aerials, capturing the plasma and focusing it on the transformers which convert the high-voltage grid supply to lower voltage domestic supplies. The massive flow of DC current would overheat and melt the transformers' copper wiring, effectively destroying them. Power supplies in the area hit by the plasma ball would fail. A small-scale version of this happened in Quebec province in March 1989, and six million people were without electricity for nine hours. A strike the size of the Carrington event would be orders of magnitude worse.

The NAS report outlines the consequences if a Carrington event hit the USA. Within 90 seconds, 300 key transformers would be knocked out, cutting off power to 130 million people. All kinds of electronic communications would fail. Within a few hours, water taps would run dry as there would be no power to pump the supply. All electrically-powered transport would grind to a halt. So would petrol and diesel vehicles as their tanks ran dry, because there would be no power to pump fuel at the filling stations. With no transport, supplies of food in urban areas would rapidly run out; typically, cities only have about three days' supply of food (and much of that is in freezers or refrigerators, so would soon spoil). Even establishments with backup generators, such as hospitals, could only keep going for as long as their fuel lasted – probably three days. Medicines would soon begin to run out, as the factories would have no power to make them and the vehicles no fuel to transport them.

Worst of all, it would take a very long time to put matters right. The wrecked transformers would have to be replaced, a job which takes a skilled crew at least a week for each one – assuming they have a spare one handy. There are very few spare ones lying around; they are usually made to order, a process which can take a year. And the factories which can make them will probably have no power – or, if they are outside the affected zone, problems in transporting them to where they're needed. Even with the transformers repaired, there would be a kind of Catch-22 because almost all the natural gas and fuel pipelines which supply power stations require electricity to operate. No electricity = no fuel = no electricity. Coal fired power stations may have 30 days of fuel, but nuclear ones would automatically shut down when the grid fails.

Given the difficulties and delays in responding to and recovering from Hurricane Katrina, an event which affected only a very small percentage of the USA, it is easy to see that rescue and recovery services would be completely overwhelmed by a national disaster on such a scale. The net result of all this, according to the NAS report, is that the recovery time would be four to ten years – and the USA may never be the same again. The New Scientist article quotes an estimate of the death toll of "tens of millions of lives". The rest of the developed world is just as vulnerable to a major geomagnetic storm as the USA. Ironically, it is the poorest and most rural societies which would be least affected.

Can anything be done to guard against this? Precautions to protect the grid could be taken given enough warning, such as adjusting voltages and loads and restricting energy transfers. However, this process takes at least 15 minutes – which is about as long as it can take for a CME to reach Earth from the nearest existing solar satellite. Fortunately, a follow-up report in the 11th April issue of the New Scientist describes a new technique for predicting CMEs using NASA's STEREO (Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory) pair of spacecraft which follow the same orbit as the Earth. A check following a small CME event of 16 December 2008 discovered that STEREO spotted changes to the sun which presaged the event. Given some improvements to the software to speed up data analysis, up to 24 hours warning could be provided of a CME about to head our way.

Let's hope that someone is working on that software and setting up a system for automatic warnings to be sent to power grid organisations worldwide, and that those organisations are compelled to put in place and rehearse the precautionary procedures. This can be done quite easily and cheaply, and the consequences of failing to do so could be catastrophic.

Saturday 25 July 2009

Interzone 223

A special issue this time, focusing on Dominic Green and featuring three of his stories as well as an interview. In addition, there are two other stories and the usual news and reviews of books and films, plus another interview – with Joe Abercrombie. The balance of the reviews seems to have shifted more towards films this time, with many DVDs covered as well as current cinema offerings such as the new Star Trek, Terminator and X-Men movies. A thought-provoking read, as usual. The surreal fantasy cover is by Adam Tredowski.

The Transmigration of Aishwarya Desai, by Eric Gregory, illustrated by Arthur Wang: an academic visits a planet for a debate with a rival over the reality of her claimed psychic contact with an uncommunicative alien race, only to have this resolved in an unexpectedly dramatic fashion.

Silence and Roses, by Suzanne Palmer, illustrated by LeMat: robot caretakers look after their human masters in a secluded retirement home, waiting patiently for their charges to self-repair as they fall silent, one by one. It takes an intruder to point out that they aren't going to speak, ever again. This was the most memorable of the stories in this issue, but partly for the wrong reason; surely once the first master died, the others would have explained to the robots what had happened, and what to do with the body?

Next to the three stories by Dominic Green, all of them illustrated by Daniel Bristowe-Bailey.

Butterfly Bomb: an old man lives in solitary splendour on a planet, except for a companion who is picked up by a passing slave ship. The old man follows in a rescue attempt – but who exactly is being rescued?

Coat of Many Colours: a genetic experiment produces a large reptilian animal with scales which shift in colour even after death. A potential goldmine, provided that the creature is not deemed to be intelligent – but how to determine this?

Glister: prospectors trapped on a strange and hazardous planet go looking for valuable minerals, but the source is mobile and success comes from an unexpected direction.

In the interview with Dominic Green, he explains his philosophy in writing SF and what motivates his varied stories. The revelation which most intrigued me is that the author has had no fewer than twenty stories published in Interzone over the last eleven years, one of which was nominated for a Hugo award, but none of his novels has been picked up by a publisher; he has a substantial collection of rejection slips. Judging by these stories, he is clearly a talented, original and entertaining author, but that is not proving to be enough. I have written before about the difficulties in getting published, but what it seems to boil down is that there are too many writers and not enough readers – or, at least, purchasers. Green has accordingly put four of his novels on his website for free.

It does make me wonder exactly where fiction publishing is heading. There seems to be an ever-narrowing range of opportunities for conventional publication, yet major problems with the alternatives. Regular followers of this blog will know that I self-published my two novels; The Foresight War and Scales. The first was an immediate commercial success and has recouped my investment more than twice over. The second was not, so I have offered it as a free download on my website rather than let all the effort in writing it go to waste. I have recently updated my web article on publishing SFF fiction here, and I advise all who have ambitions to be a novelist to read it carefully, along with the related article on marketing .

Saturday 18 July 2009

Voyager in Night by C. J. Cherryh, plus a film catch-up

This 1984 book by Cherryh is uncharacteristic of most of her other work (at least, that with which I am familiar – I have by no means consumed all of her oeuvre). Three young prospectors are travelling in their makeshift spacecraft through a distant solar system when the fall into the path of a vast alien starship, which collects their craft before moving on. It transpires that the ship is ruled by a being normally referred to as "<>", but there is a motley collection of individuals on board who are far from in agreement with their leader, or each other. None of them appears in person, <> communicating via a virtual image of one of the prospectors. <> can also manufacture virtual copies of the prospectors, including their personalities and memories. The story follows the prospectors' struggle to understand what is going on and to resolve their own identities, against the background of a mutiny on board.

If the beings who inhabit the starship are bizarre creations so is the ship itself, appearing to be more organic than metallic. This is a relatively brief tale (only 220 pages in my paperback) without the long introspective passages which normally fill her work. Rather dark and grim, it is a work which is more intriguing than enjoyable.
I felt like some mindless entertainment (my brain cells go on strike with increasing frequency) so I watched My Super Ex-Girlfriend, the 2006 Uma Thurman film. It's about a guy who discovers that his new girlfriend is a super-heroine - and subsequently finds that there can be hazards in dumping such a being. A good popcorn movie, pleasantly entertaining and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny. I particularly enjoyed the scene with the shark...
Sadly, I was less impressed by the DVD of Hogfather, based on Terry Pratchett's Discworld comic fantasy novels. It was just about watchable but dragged very slowly, and when it ended after 1½ hours and I discovered that that was only Part 1 – there was a Part 2 on the disk – I gave up.
Back on course again with the latest Star Trek movie, the prequel to the original series. Entertaining and with some good CGI, it even got a round of applause from the cinema audience! I do wonder why Hollywood finds it so hard to make such a movie without inconsistencies in the plot, though….and I found the film rather forgettable (I'm already struggling to recall the story).
The Spiderwick Chronicles is a neat piece of storytelling. A mother and her children move into a house left to them by a distant relative, only to discover that they're not alone. Their relative had been investigating the world of magical creatures and had accumulated a precious store of knowledge in a book, which a particularly nasty denizen of that world was determined to get hold of as soon as he could break the magic circle protecting the house. An intriguing adventure, with the children a lot less annoying than they usually are in Hollywood films.
Wanted puts us back into superhero territory. This 2008 film is apparently based on a comic book figure, although as I don't read comics I wasn't aware of that when I saw it. With a cast including Morgan Freeman, James McAvoy and Angelina Jolie it obviously had a big budget. It concerns the existence of an old-established group of assassins with superhuman powers, including the ability to speed themselves up and to bend the path of their bullets. A young man (McAvoy) is hauled out of a humdrum life by this group, as he is the son of one of their members who died in a series of attacks by a renegade assassin. McAvoy is trained up and despatched on the trail of the renegade. All is not as it seems and there are various twists and turns before the usual cataclysmic conclusion. Not a bad effort, with some exciting scenes. Jolie fans will love it…

Friday 10 July 2009

The Alien Years by Robert Silverberg

This book was first published in 1998 but I started to read it only recently, because it was chosen for the Modern Science Fiction discussion group. Silverberg is one of a number of authors whose works I absorbed in quantity in the 1960s and 70s, but I was not a particular fan and haven't kept any of them for re-reading.

The first impression I had on reading The Alien Years was a strong sense of déjà vu, since it starts in more or less the present day with the sudden arrival of aliens in major cities across the world. I don't know how many alien invasion stories I've read over the decades, but it must be dozens at least, so yet another one has to be really special to grab my attention. At first, the aliens seem to be mainly curious and take no offensive action, but this changes once they are attacked; their initial response is to black out all electrical apparatus (including battery powered) across the globe for a fortnight, with longer blackouts following later. They then use their telepathic powers to begin to exploit humanity as their work force.

Silverberg's story gives us no insight into the alien' motivations (at least for the first 200 pages) but focuses primarily on an extended Californian family and their responses to the invasion, with a secondary plot thread concerning some residents of Salisbury in England. Tension develops between those who wish to use force in resisting the aliens, those who regard this as futile and want to bide their time until there seems to be some chance of success, and those who accept that the aliens are here to stay and collaborate with them.

I mentioned the first 200 pages because, after I had got that far, I stopped and asked myself three key questions: was I enjoying the story; did I want to see how it ended; and did I care what happened to the characters? My answers were "no", "not particularly" and "no" respectively. So I stopped reading, at not quite half-way through; I have too many other books in my to-read pile to spend more time on this one.

What didn't I like about it? First, I found the writing style rather turgid with long info-dumps often dressed up as the internal thoughts of the characters. Secondly, the story was very slow-moving and failed to engage me; it wasn't sufficiently original or exciting. Third, the plot was rather depressing – I don't like dystopian settings, and I've read too many with this kind of plot already. But most of all, my problem was with the characters; not due to lack of characterisation, but because I found it difficult to relate to any of them and simply didn't like them. The only one who seemed quite promising featured initially as the main character but was killed off early in the story.

One other observation: the disruption causing by shutting down all electrical equipment is considerably understated in the book; the most serious problem described was a breakdown in law and order. In reality, it would be a colossal catastrophe throughout the developed world (the third world would be much less affected). Piped water would quickly dry up (no pumps). All powered transport would shut down, apart from steam engines (and primitive diesels with manual starting handles – until immediately available fuel ran out). Our just-in-time society absolutely depends on a constant flow of transport, especially for food supply; cities typically hold stocks of food for only about three days, and frozen and chilled food would rapidly spoil. In reality, there would be a huge exodus of people from urban areas, searching for water and food in the countryside. Almost all forms of employment would collapse, and all except the most basic medical facilities would break down. I'll be dealing with these issues in more detail in a future post concerning the Carrington Event.